Saying that Korea-Japan relations have been rough would be an understatement. Seventy-six years have passed since the nuclear bombings and the end of Japanese colonial rule as of this year. Although the nuclear bombings ended the war, it also took the lives of countless innocents. After 27 years of struggling, a memorial for the Korean victims of the Nagasaki bombing was erected in the Nagasaki Peace Park on November 6 of this year. This is the first official memorial for Koreans who were in Nagasaki due to Japan's forced labor when the United States dropped the atomic bomb. The memorial not only brings closure to Korean-descended Japanese people, it also serves as a window into Korea and Japan’s relations.
Among the lives lost in the Nagasaki bombing, approximately 10 thousand of them were Korean workers who were forced into labor. On 1938, after the Japanese Empire joined WW2(World War 2), they enacted the National Mobilization Law which mobilized laborers from colonies to be used for war efforts. Many of these laborers were caught in the bombings, with Koreans suffering the most casualties according to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Sun-Gum Gwon, a Korean survivor of the nuclear bombings, said in an interview with various Korean news outlets on May of this year that she “still remembers the day when black clouds flooded the sky”. Despite these deaths, there were no memorials for Korean victims in Nagasaki until this one. A small memorial for the Korean victims was raised in Nagasaki on 1979 by The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (a group affiliated with North Korea) and a Japanese civic group. However, the Japanese government did not allow it to explicitly state that it was for “Korean” victims. That makes the memorial constructed this year the first and only official memorial for Korean victims in Nagasaki led by the South Korean Government.
The Mindan (A Japan-dwelling Korean group affiliated with South Korea), has made an effort to have a Nagasaki memorial constructed. However, it was delayed by multiple arguments, the most contentious being the inscription. The Mindan construction committee wanted the inscription to explain that the Korean victims killed in the Nagasaki bombing were there from forced labor, which the Nagasaki state had a problem with. Nagasaki, in accordance with the claims of the Japanese central government, claimed that the Korean laborers were not forced to go there.
The argument finally ended on March of 2021, with both sides agreeing to replace “forced” with “against their will” for the Korean and Japanese inscriptions. Some historians have pointed out that the conflict surrounding the construction of the memorial shows the unfortunate rise of historical negationism in Japan. This is because there was no controversy when the Hiroshima Korean Memorial was constructed in 1970. This can be linked to the fact that Shinzo Abe was in power when the Nagasaki memorial construction was beginning in earnest.
Former prime minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, along with the Liberal Democratic party, is an avid supporter of historical negationism. Shinzo Abe has denied the numerous war crimes Japan has committed during WW2, and led the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform and headed the Diet antenna of Nippon Kaigi, two groups that openly deny Japanese war crimes. Shinzo Abe has also regularly visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine that encourages and worships the militarism of the Japanese Empire. The arguments on the Nagasaki memorial may serve as an indicator of the rise of historical negationism during Shinzo Abe’s 8-year stay as prime minister.
The acts Shinzo Abe committed as prime minister has significantly worsened the relations between the two countries. Koreans have voiced outrage on the rampant historical negationism, and the ‘revisions’ to history books by Shinzo Abe denying Japanese war crimes and glorifying militarism combined with the argument on forced labor have only served to widen the gap between the countries. Although Shinzo Abe stepped down in 2021, the future of historical negationism in Japan still remains unsure.
However, there are silver linings to this occurrence that shows a hopeful prospect of future relations between the two countries. The construction of the memorial was a joint effort between Korean and Japanese civic groups, and both sides have expressed the desire to work together more in the future. The chief of the Peace activity support center Nobuto Hirano has compared this occurrence to a rear-view mirror that looks backwards to aid going forwards, and stated that he will ‘continue being a rear-view mirror.’
Many Japanese students have also visited the memorial. On the day of the opening, Nagasaki high school students who are part of the peace ambassadors program attended the ceremony. It is the hopes of the construction committee that students who visit the memorial will gain an interest in history, thus reducing the sway historic negationism has on the newer generations. Yuuka Ookuma, a student who visited the memorial, commented that it is important to face the past and remember what Japan has done.
The Nagasaki memorial was a result of 76 years of effort. Not only has it highlighted the rise of historical negationism in Japan after Abe, it also showed the possibility of reconciliation between the two countries from the effects it had on Japanese citizens. History was and still remains to this day one of the biggest issues that Korea and Japan are divided on. Although the fall of historical negationism won’t be the end of the problem, it will still be a giant leap towards reconciliation. Reiterating Nobuto Hirano’s analogy, for the two countries to reconcile, an effort is needed to create more rear-view mirrors by remembering and spreading awareness of the past. To do that, both sides will need to be able to seek the truth from an unbiased perspective.